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Belgium’s following the green and re-discovering the joy of hops.

By Joe Stange

When Americans caught on to Belgian ales in the late 1980s and 1990s, what we really caught on to were the Belgian ales of, well, the ’80s and ’90s. These were not the Belgian beers of ages past, despite the marketing claims. Abbey ales, wheat beers and sweetened and sparkling fruit drinks are still popular, and while they have style, complexity and flavor, what most of them do not have in any great quantity is hops.

This wasn’t always the case: Many Belgian beers were amply hopped until the early 20th century. But wars and economics took their tolls. Two postwar trends conspired to nearly rid Belgium of hop-forward beers: One was consolidation, as large breweries were swallowed by larger ones that answered to profit-hungry shareholders. The second trend was what Carl Kins, a Kortrijk-based writer and beer judge, calls “Coca-Cola-ization.” As drinkers went for sweet stuff, brewers obliged.

“Hops are expensive sometimes,” Kins says, “and using less was positive for profit, whereas sugar can be obtained on the cheap.”

Whether today’s Belgian brewers are re-discovering a hoppy tradition, jumping on an international bandwagon or just slapping green cones on the label to reach a lupulin-lusty American market—or a haphazard blend thereof—is open to interpretation. Whatever the reason, Belgians are now getting a hoppy makeover.

A FEW BREWS YOU MIGHT FIND STATESIDE…

De Ranke Hop Harvest: The mold-breaking XX Bitter recipe gets a fresh-hop boost for this annual release that’s hugely floral, firmly bitter and ultimately dry.

Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Triple: This 9%-ABV beer came to life when American importers asked for “a Belgian tripel with much more hops,” says brewer Chris Bauweraerts.

Senne Crushable Saison: Senne’s one-off collaboration with Pennsylvania’s Tired Hands combines a bone-dry saison with firm bitterness and a grapefruit aroma.

…AND A FEW YOU PROBABLY WON’T (YET).

Sainte Hélène Simcoe Lager: This 3.5% session-lager experiment is gaining fame; it’s easy to drink and redolent of peaches thanks to its namesake hop.

Verzet Super NoAH: Verzet are upstarts using other breweries till they can afford their own. Bucking current trends, this is an unusual sub-5%-ABV drinker whose acronym means “No American Hops.” Rather than straightforwardly fruity, its flavor winds up zesty, herbal and compelling.

 

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